Breaking into the tech industry is hard, especially when you’re not already strapped with a technical background.
There are plenty of bootcamps and online courses that help career changers build skills, but it takes more than new skills to make the transition. What helped me break into tech wasn’t an expensive course, but rather Philly’s warm, inviting, and incredibly active tech scene.
If you’re a career changer feeling overwhelmed and alone on your journey, clear your calendar and come out to tech events that spark your interest. Introduce yourself and share your story. Until you show up, you don’t know how far the community can take you. I’d like to share my story of how being involved in the local tech community helped me make the transition. If you’re looking to kickstart your career in tech, I hope my story inspires you to shift some of your energy into your local tech community.
In 2014 I was conducting research for my master’s degree on the culture of technological innovation. When I went into the research, I had my heart set on getting a Ph.D. and going into academics. By the time I completed interviews and ethnographic observation in 50 coworking spaces and makerspaces in nine cities across six states, I realized that I didn’t want to spend my career studying the tech ecosystem, I wanted to become a part of it.
Along the way, I learned that tech events are a great way for career changers to find out what they are interested in and build the skills needed to get that coveted first job. When the people I met through my research heard about my background, they said I’d be a great career changer because, “We need people who know how to do things other than code!” However, I was still unsure exactly how I fit in.
So I decided to focus on what I knew best: how regional tech ecosystems work. As the end of my master’s program approached, I made an effort to participate in local tech events and talk to anyone about my background and goals. Since my passion for the tech community pulled me away from my original career path, I figured getting involved and sharing my story could help point me to the next step.
Going to tech events alone, let alone speaking up during them, can be scary. Take a deep breath and just do it!
In my experience, speaking up pays off. For example, during the group introductions at Help Plan Philly Tech Week 2015, I said, “Hi, my name is Laura Oxenfeld. My background is in qualitative research with a focus on technology, and I’m looking for a full time job!” The room broke out in friendly laughter, and a few people called out, “Let’s get this girl a job!” By the end of the event I got a few cards and job leads. In a perfect world, the story would end there. However, it continues on.
Cut to July 2015. I finally landed my first job in the industry, at a small healthcare software company (which I ironically found through Glassdoor, not my tech connections). In that job, I wore many hats, which exposed me to multiple paths within the tech world. I started out doing support, writing how-to articles and training new hires. By the end of my tenure, I was also getting hands-on experience in the field I ultimately settled on pursuing: user research and user experience design.
Once you find what you like within tech, start focusing on events around that.
I found the world of UX by attending a wide variety of tech events, meetups, and workshops in Philly. The events I went to spanned front end development, back end development, analytics, design, UX and the startup world. At the events I met other people like myself, dipping their toe in different pools to see which one they liked. My “Aha!” moment happened during a Girl Develop It workshop on UX research methods taught by Alicia Raciti in September 2015. After that weekend, I started to focus on Philly’s UX community and wean out events on other topics.
If you find a community, or tribe, that feels good to you, don’t let your beginner status hold you back from considering volunteer roles.
As a result of that shift in focus, I ended up at PhillyCHI’s World Usability Day event at Bresslergroup on November 12, 2015. At the beginning of the event, PhillyCHI reminded the audience to put in nominations for elections for the 2016 board. Lis Pardi, the outgoing president, shared some great experiences she had on the board and encouraged people of all skill levels to put themselves in the running. Despite feeling a bit nervous because I was a novice who didn’t know many people in UX, I nominated myself. On December 4, 2015, I was notified of my election to the 2016 board. For the next year, I would help PhillyCHI serve Philadelphia’s UX community for the 12th consecutive year.
Volunteering for the UX community helped kickstart my career in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. The most tangible benefit I reaped is my current job as a hybrid business analyst and UX designer at Delphic Digital. Volunteering provided me with so many unexpected career-advancing benefits that I’m passionate about sharing the story with other career changers. There are too many lessons to include in this post. However, I am sending out proposals to speak on the topic at regional events and national conferences, so stay tuned! I’m also speaking on a panel for career changers organized by Girl Develop It during Philly Tech Week 2017 presented by Comcast on May 1, location TBA.
Once you break through into your first job in tech, you can also shift the flavor of your participation in the tech community to fit your changing needs.
My journey into UX continues to unfold. In 2017, I have decided to shift my energy away from being a community-building volunteer to volunteer roles that broadens my hands-on experience in UX. This shift was influenced by several talks given by amazing women at Ela Conf 2016, like Lisa Yoder’s “Getting Involved and Giving Back as a Beginner.” Some of my next steps include serving as a UX lead in Code for Philly’s upcoming Civic Engagement Launchpad and finding volunteer UX opportunities in the maker community through a joint event with makerspace NextFab and PhillyCHI on June 16, 2017. Since teaching is a great way to learn, I’m also serving as a teaching assistant for UX courses with Girl Develop It. In addition to deepening my skillset, I’m doing these activities because I genuinely love the tech community and want to give back.
If you’re serious about getting into tech, come out to events and start finding your tribe.
My journey is one of many examples that show how much Philly’s tech community has to offer. Participating in the community has helped me find a career path that I love, expand my professional network, find opportunities for hands-on experience and develop friendships that I’ll have for years to come. You can work on changing careers while isolated from the local tech community, or you can get involved and share your journey with peers who are in the same boat and others who are a few steps ahead of you and willing to give you a hand up. If you’re not sure where to start, go to events you find interesting, or are curious about, during Philly Tech Week 2017. And if you see me, say hi and tell me your story.-30-
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